If there’ one plant combination that could lure me to live in the deep South, it is live oaks festooned with Spanish moss and resurrection ferns. Live oak (Quercus virginiana) is a massive evergreen, hardy to Zone 8, that supports the other two plants. Blue-gray Spanish moss (Tillandsia usneoides) sways romantically all around the canopy, while leathery leaved resurrection fern (Polypodium polypodioides) clusters along the tops of the branches. I can’t think of a similar iconic combination for the Eastern Shore, at least not one that instantly tells you where you are the way live oaks and Spanish moss do.
Above: A live oak with Spanish moss and resurrection ferns gracing the plantings of Brookgreen Gardens outside Myrtle Beach, South Carolina.
I’ve recently had plenty of time to think about it. My husband and I just returned from visiting family in Florida. For various reasons, we drive, and I enjoy the time spent looking at plants and landscapes. (Once again this trip, I contemplated compiling a horrible pruning errors blog post, but stopping and taking pictures of people’s yards seemed rude. Suffice it to say the pair of tightly sheared camellias that had been shaped into dense giant green gumballs studded with struggling red flowers won this year’s prize!)
We travel back roads as much as possible, since 95 is boring and hectic. (Did you know Route 301 goes the entire way, only joining up with 95 for a couple short sections?) I started thinking about iconic plants as I watched spring roll in as we drove south.
One plant that seemed to signal spring is Carolina jasmine (Gelsemium sempervirens), whose yellow, trumpet-shaped blooms were much in evidence by the time we reached the Carolinas. A native, evergreen to semievergreen vine that reaches about 20 feet, it grew along fences and climbed up through trees and shrubs lining the roads. It’s a lovely plant, hardy in Zones 7 to 9, that should be grown more often.
I added improved cultivar ‘Margarita’ to the garden here at Hackberry Point a couple years ago. I got my plant from North Creek Nursery, who report the cultivar has larger flowers than the species and is reliably hardy to Zone 6. Its clear yellow flowers appear in early summer. (See North Creek Nursery for more information and a photograph.) In a “do as I say, not as I do” move, I finally installed a permanent trellis for it last year—luckily, without major damage!
Camellias were also much in evidence both on the way down and the way back, and as we rolled back onto the Eastern Shore, I noticed the first signs of spring up here as well. There were early daffodils, especially in warm, south-facing spots, along with cherry trees in full bloom. I also spotted a Cornelian cherry dogwood (Cornus mas) strutting its stuff in Chestertown yesterday.
As for iconic plants and plant combinations for the Eastern Shore, marshes along the Chesapeake Bay spring to mind. As a horticulturist, though, I decided to pick a native plant that most of us can grow, and for me, that’s American holly (Ilex opaca). I’ve never lived anywhere that it grows so well. Plants thrive in our beech-maple woodland along Worton creek. I’ve seen hollies combined with all sorts of plants, and grown alone, but its native companions in the woods are my favorites. There, it grows with summersweet clethra (Clethra alnifolia), mountain laurel (Kalmia latifolia), and what I think is deerberry (Vaccinium stamineum) filling in below. In the patches of sun beneath the shrubs is a ground cover of emerald moss and partridge berry (Mitchella repens). Hollies anchor a more subtle combination than live oaks provide, but it is one that grows on you. I’ll happily claim it!
Above: Mountain Laurel blooming in June, with gardening companion Casey.
A travel note: If you’ve always wanted to see manatees, plan a trip to Blue Spring State Park in Orange City, Florida. My picture isn’t great, but if you look you can see one of the many manatees we spotted. (Reminder to self: Check your camera battery before you go so you can take better pictures next time!) Best time to visit is during cold weather, from late November through early April. Blue Spring is a consistent 72°F, and when the weather gets cold, manatees from the St. John’s River gather there. One person I talked to saw over 300 on a day when it was 26°F in the morning!
Above: A manatee glides through the clear water of Blue Spring off the St. John’s River in Florida.